Editorial: S.C. Supreme Court decision bigger than cruise ships

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The state Supreme Court’s decision to take up a local lawsuit challenging a permit for a new and expanded cruise ship terminal is a welcome development not just for the plaintiffs but for any individual or organization seeking relief from a governmental decision.

At issue is the legal “standing” to challenge a ruling or action. Without it, judges dismiss cases before ever examining the underlying complaints, which in this case concern pollution and traffic generated by cruise ships.

To be granted standing, plaintiffs typically have to demonstrate they have suffered direct harm by the action in question. And so far, claims that exhaust fumes have caused sore throats or aggravated respiratory conditions have been deemed insufficient. But if Charlestonians and their advocates don’t have a say in how in their environment is shaped, who does?

In the cruise ship case, the plaintiffs, including neighborhood, historic preservation and environmental groups, are challenging a 2012 permit the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) issued to the State Ports Authority to rehabilitate a wharf for a new terminal adjacent the existing one at the foot of Market Street.

In the latest go-around, the State Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs failed to show they would suffer any direct harm and “presented only speculative claims that the proposed passenger terminal would adversely affect their property values and businesses.”

But shouldn’t anyone have a right to ask a court to review a decision that affects them? We think so, and so does attorney Blan Holman, who is representing the plaintiffs.

“We will ask the Supreme Court to restore those rights, which are vital to keeping the government in check and accountable to citizens across South Carolina,” he told The Post and Courier recently.

In 2013 in federal court, where rules about establishing standing differ slightly, a judge rejected an Army Corps of Engineers permit issued for the project, saying the agency focused only on replacing some pilings under the wharf and failed to consider the environmental impact the new terminal would have on the historic neighborhood surrounding it.

So far, it’s unclear when the state Supreme Court will take up the long-running case against DHEC, but it’s worth noting that Carnival Cruise Line plans to replace its Charleston-based ship Ecstasy with the slightly larger Sunshine in May.

For the time being, the State Ports Authority is sticking to its self-imposed cap of 104 port calls per year. But the cruise industry continues to expand, and the agency will no doubt come under increased pressure to lift that cap if the terminal project is allowed to move forward.

Putting arguments for or against cruise ships aside, we hope and trust the state’s highest court will decide that, indeed, citizens do have a right to their day in court when it comes to governmental decisions affecting the environment — truly a shared asset in which we are all stakeholders.